There are still 100 million Americans living in areas with Internet service that are not subscribers, according to a 2012 report from the Federal Communications Commission. An additional 19 million Americans have no option to of buying broadband Internet service.

To meet this need, Comcast launched an initiative to expand broadband access in 2011. In its third year, Internet Essentials has grown to provide nearly 220,000 families in the nation with Internet access, or around 900,000 individuals, according to Steve Kipp, Comcast Washington’s vice president of communications.

The discounted broadband service is just $9.95 a month for families with children currently eligible for participating in the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program. There are no activation fees, and rates do not increase. (Visit www.internetessentials.com or call 1-855-8-INTERNET for more details and eligibility information).

With regular Internet access becoming as basic a need as food, heat and other utilities, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program is as essential as its name suggests. In today’s digital age, being able to apply for a job online can make or break a chance at a career; and access to the Internet to utilize a school district’s resources can mean a better chance at success for a student.

“More and more, companies are no longer accepting paper applications and are requiring job applicants to apply online,” says Kipp. “The same holds true for schools, which now post grades and homework assignments online. This can be a big disadvantage to students and families without broadband access.”

This doesn’t solve entirely the complex issue of the digital divide we face in communities across the country, but it’s a significant first step in getting digital access to those who need it and would benefit from its advantages. Bridging the digital divide has become the rallying call of the company and its Internet Essentials program a “cornerstone” of its community investment, describes Kipp. (To read more about the “digital divide”, read James Tabafunda’s article on page nine in this issue.)

Affordability, easy access, awareness and education are key in ensuring long-term Internet use for lower income families. With monthly rates of $9.95 for eligible families, the option of purchasing a Netbook computer at $149.99 and access to in-person, free digital literacy trainings at local community agencies are a few ways Comcast is seeking to further support families.

The points on this map indicate Internet Essentials subscriptions. Map provided by Comcast.
The points on this map indicate Internet Essentials subscriptions. Map provided by Comcast.

In Washington state, 11,000 families have subscribed to Internet Essentials in areas where Comcast provides service, according to Kipp, with 7,600 in the Seattle metropolitan area.

“The vast majority of those families have never had access to Internet at home before,” he says. “The impact to these families is substantial and we’re glad to provide that. It’s the right thing to do for our communities.”

Comcast considered many factors when designing the Internet Essentials program — including partnering with local community organizations to make available free digital literacy trainings. It became an indispensable part of the overall effort by the company to bridge the digital divide.

“We realized at the outset of the program that access wasn’t enough,” says Diem Ly, Comcast Washington’s external affairs manager. “If we want to make a true difference in these families’ lives, we have to address other needs that intersect with this, such as awareness of the Internet’s vast potential to contribute to your quality of life, and education and training to get started.”

This training, facilitated by community partners and supported in part by Comcast, includes the basics of computer use, software applications, finding and applying for employment, and how to research online for social services or school district resources.

“This Internet Essentials program is just one step towards a solution to bridge the digital divide. There is still much more to do and learn from our communities,” Ly adds.

“In the end we’re really helping a family participate in the 21st century and this new digital world that we’re in,” says Kipp. “We’re getting them that level playing field and that platform to make a better life for themselves.”

So who’s eligible and how can families subscribe? Learn more about Internet Essentials and if you or someone you know is eligible by visiting www.internetessentials.com or calling 1-855-8-INTERNET.

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